Sapphire’s Upscale Indian Cuisine

Written by Jonathan Bines on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



Eternal Circle
Fusion
cuisine is a quintessentially American innovation, the inevitable result of
our nation’s status as the world’s crucible of identities, combined
with our national obsession with progress in all its forms. While traditional
cultures may be content to leave well enough alone, Americans will always try
to figure out how to make well enough better.



Even the
venerable cuisine of India is subject to creative updating by ambitious chefs
bent on demonstrating their American ingenuity. True, Indian cuisine has taken
centuries to develop, incorporating the influences of dozens of distinct cultures
to become one of the world’s most refined and diverse cuisines–but
did an Indian ever think of fricassee of wild mushroom with chickpea spaetzle?
Well, we did (at Tabla). Why settle for samosas when you can have goat cheese
samosas (at Raga)? Why opt for masala dosa when you can have your dosa stuffed
with sea bass (at Surya)?


I’m
not trying to imply that there’s anything wrong with Indian fusion, but
with the city awash in funky Indian fusion joints, it’s reassuring to note
that some of the finest Indian restaurants in town are also the most traditional.
I’m thinking of Dawat, Chola, Bay Leaf, Cafe Spice, Salaam Bombay and,
now, Sapphire, at Columbus Circle.


Sapphire
is owned in part by a couple of partners in Salaam Bombay, which has long been
one of my favorite Indian restaurants for its diverse, well-executed menu of
regional specialties from all over India. Like Salaam Bombay, Sapphire really
gives diners a sense of the immense range and potential of Indian cuisine, but
it ratchets up the quality (and the prices) two or three notches, placing the
restaurant in the august company of the city’s top-tier Indian joints,
and making it competitive with the kind of intensely flavored, spice-infused
cuisine you’d find in the great five-star hotels of India (most of the
best Indian restaurants in India are still located in the big international
hotels, although I’ve heard that restaurant culture has started to take
hold among the wealthier, more cosmopolitan residents of Mumbai).


A traditional
Indian restaurant from its stereotypically formal waiters right on down to the
amusing typos on the menu (anyone for Lamb Scaloops in a Mild Sauce?), Sapphire
insists on its own elegance, even though most of its patrons aren’t so
concerned (polo shirts and open collars abound). Waiters move about with all
solicitousness, making sure your every whim is catered to (but stopping short,
thankfully, of folding your napkin should you have to leave the table). The
dining room, which you enter past the always-empty bar and through a pair of
magnificent hand-carved antique wooden doors, is spacious and lushly decorated
with fabrics and wall hangings. On one side of the room the ceiling is painted
sky blue with puffs of white cloud–a pleasant effect, actually, despite
how cheesy it sounds.


The formality
grates a bit, particularly if you’re trying to settle in for a quiet evening,
but once the food starts arriving all distractions become insignificant. The
heart of great Indian cuisine is in the spices, with dishes frequently calling
for a dozen or more. Chef Vijay Bhargava proves himself a master, both at combining
and balancing the various spices and herbs in the complex mixtures (masalas)
that form the foundation of the different dishes, and in coaxing the maximum
flavor out of the masalas to create intense, complex sauces (curries). Nor does
it hurt that his main ingredients are universally fresh and of premium quality.


For starters,
skip the samosas (they’re excellent, filled with tender potato and pea
and studded with cumin seeds) and the chicken pakoras (greaseless, tempura-like
chicken fingers with a sweet dipping sauce) in favor of more ambitious fare:
Mussels Porial, giant bivalves removed from the shell, sauteed and served in
a mild but complexly flavored sauce made from myriad spices including chilies,
mustard and fresh curry leaves; or Shrimp Balchao, large shrimp sauteed and
covered in a sultry, highly concentrated tomato-based sauce suffused with the
heat of roasted chili peppers. There’s also a superb rendition of mulligatawny
soup, this one tart and mild, with the flavor of a subtle masala permeating
the thin lentil broth.


The entree
section boasts more than 40 selections, including the full complement of roasted
meats and fish from the tandoor oven, the old Northern Indian standards (chicken
tikka masala, lamb vindaloo) and a range of unusual recipes from across the
subcontinent, including Goan spicy lamb stew and Gujrati-style bitter melon
and potatoes. Sapphire includes a large selection of vegetarian options, ranging
from Rajasthani-style okra to vegetable croquettes simmered in cream sauce,
and the usual assortment of breads (roti, naan, paratha) plus some superb kulcha,
stuffed with seafood then tandoor-baked.


Of the tandoori
dishes, we enjoyed the chicken tikka (white meat chicken cooked in the tandoor
oven). But the rack of lamb stopped us in our tracks: three succulent chops
permeated with smoky flavor and the pungency of the spice marinade. At $22.95,
it’s the most expensive item on the menu, but worth the premium. Strangely,
chicken tikka masala disappointed, despite a superb curry sauce, because the
chicken itself lacked the tandoor-baked flavor we’d enjoyed in the plain
chicken tikka. Achari lamb, cooked in a masala incorporating super-pungent Indian
pickle, nevertheless proved pleasingly mild, with only a hint of tartness in
the rich curry and meltingly tender chunks of lamb stew meat. Goa shrimp curry
is spicy and bold, redolent of coconut and chili pepper.


One of the
joys of Indian cuisine is the diversity and quality of its vegetarian repertoire.
Chef Bhargava offers some refined renditions, including Bhaghare Baigan, baby
eggplant stuffed with Southern Indian spices and simmered in a kadhai (a bit
like a wok) until chewy but tender, and redolent with spice flavor. Even a dish
as simple as Aloo Gobi Matar–potato, cauliflower and peas–is transformed
by the chef into an aggressively flavored stew, the vegetables tender and aromatic.


For dessert,
there’s a decent kheer (Indian rice pudding), creamy and mild, but a bit
sweet for my taste. There’s also a selection of astonishingly flavorful
sorbets (peach, pineapple, coconut, orange), each served in its respective frozen,
hollowed-out fruit.


Sapphire
is a welcome addition to the city’s high-end Indian options, which just
keep improving as the years go by. It’s not cheap, with dinner prices at
$5-$11 for appetizers, and $10-$22 for entrees, but the cuisine is well worth
the money. Go with a group so you can try a variety of dishes, and don’t
forget to take a look at the wine list–Sapphire is one of the few Indian
restaurants in town with its own sommelier. Reservations are recommended but
probably not required except on weekend nights.


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